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Booksellers, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A bit of an exercise in judging books by their cover."
3 stars

Movies like "The Booksellers" don't exactly backfire when, halfway through, certain viewers find that this film meant to celebrate a rare and vanishing breed of person is instead providing examples of just how that breed rubs them the wrong way. A documentary doesn't necessarily need to be capital-c convincing to be worthy, but at times there is enough self-satisfaction evident in this one to visibly crowd out the more dynamic stories that filmmaker D.W. Young could be telling.

You almost have to start from the back to see those stories. For example, while Heather O'Donnell and Rebecca Romney have been relatively visible throughout the movie, young women amid a sea of faces that are older and/or male and tweedy, they only get their own focus toward the end, with one saying how she's full of ideas and enthusiasm when the old men in the business talk about the end of an era, and, with ten minutes left in the movie, there's not going to be much time to talk about how people like them are transforming the used and antiquarian book trade. It's not long after Syreeta Gates appears as part of a segment named for the bookseller and archivist she's working with, not even named on screen, but arguably giving the film the biggest jolt of energy it has yet had by talking about how her collection of hip-hop magazines and other writing started by necessity and grew into a resource. It's an immediate demonstration of the value of collecting that has been abstract through much of the film.

There's something like an hour and fifteen minutes before that, though, in which Young takes us to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, introduces a number of people operating antiquarian bookstores, and spends time talking about the decline in the sheer numbers of bookstores in the city, from how the famous Strand used to be one of many shops on "Book Row" to how younger people idly refer to "the old chain stores". As with many films of this type, it's able to coast on how full of colorful characters it is, from the sisters running the Argosy Book Store talking about how their father took care not to force them into the family business to a man who has an Escher-inspired private library. Young's interviews do a nice job of introducing people, sketching their history, and giving a sense of the obsessive, passionate nature that leads people to this sort of work, and some of the books and other artifacts they are able to display are astounding.

It's often just the very most surface impression of the community, more likely to divert into self-deprecating comments and trivia than any sort of substantive history or examination of the changing book market ecosystem. It name-checks A.S.W. Rosenbach as someone who "reigned supreme" in the rare-book world during the first part of the Twentieth Century but doesn't say more about what that means and how his influence affected the business in the decades since, and a quick digression to talk about Martin Stone, a guitarist who was nearly part of the Rolling Stones and became known as a "book scout" for his ability to find rare materials while on the road, feels like little more than a tease, both for the story of an interesting life or more examination of what an unconventional avocation that is.

Of course, the business doesn't need as many book scouts because Amazon and Ebay and the like have made rare or unusual books from around the world more visible in a way that has made things more difficult for used booksellers, and the lack of any opposition to this perspective is sometimes frustrating for those who don't live in a city that counts only having 79 used bookstores as a sign of decimation; the idea that perceived scarcity is good and people can build a collection without a lot of effort is only looked at as bad for business rather than good in opening the pleasures of bibliophilia to more than just rich people who can easily travel to Manhattan. Moreover, aside from occasional cuts to authors Fran Lebowitz and Susan Orlean - like Gates, neither is named on-screen, with only Orlean given enough context to show why this passionate person's words carry weight - it's a long stretch before one gets any indication that anybody involved really enjoys reading. Instead, there are cheery profiles of people who talk about the thrill of the pursuit which winds up with them paying large amounts of money for something rare and then placing it in their literal warehouses, never to be seen again until they die.

It's not hard to imagine that these people would be disparaged as hoarders if they were a little less well-off and their collections a little more plebeian, at least until there was academic interest in a topic, as with one subject's L. Frank Baum collection. The seeming paradoxes of how that hoarding can become a valuable academic resource, or how less exclusivity can destroy an industry (or at least force it to change into something new) would be interesting ways to tie this material together, and it's somewhat frustrating that Young doesn't opt to do that so much as highlight personalities and show rooms full of beautiful but seldom-read books. The film is a testament to how such displays have an appeal, and there's nothing wrong with that sort of survey, but it's not a film that will do much for one who doesn't already look upon this group fondly.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33531&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/20/20 04:24:07
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USA
  06-Mar-2020

UK
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Australia
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Directed by
  D.W. Young

Written by
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  (documentary)



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